The Atlantic Interviews FPI's Robert Kagan on President Trump's Foreign Policy

In "The Foreign-Policy Establishment Defends Itself From Trump," The Atlantic's Uri Friedman writes:

Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.

Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).

“We have large problems of perception,” Kagan continued, in reference to the establishment. “Trump says this, but he’s not the only one: ‘The last 30 years have been a disaster in American foreign policy.’ And my answer to that is: Really? Compared to which 30 years? ... Would you like the 30 years prior to World War I? Would you like the 30 years from World War I through World War II? Would you even like the 30 years following World War II, with the Cold War and [the wars in] Vietnam and Korea? Actually, the last 30 years have been pretty good in historical terms. And I think that what has been the American foreign-policy establishment’s bipartisan foreign policy since World War II has actually been one of the most successful foreign policies in history.”

“For all the flaws, for all the mistakes ... if you compare the last 70 years to the 70 years before that, I think you could say: If this was the foreign-policy establishment’s foreign policy, they did pretty damn good,” Kagan argued. “So yeah, I would say: Let’s not get run out of town because people have decided that everything’s been a disaster when in fact it hasn’t been a disaster.” Trump has highlighted the failures of foreign-policy experts to discredit their expertise, but Kagan’s message is different: Don’t overlook our successes.

Faced with a U.S. president who is uncommonly critical of conventional expertise and many components of the U.S.-led international order, who communicates in tweets and consumes information via one-pagers and maps, Brookings has reacted in Blob-ian fashion: with a 63-page defense of traditional U.S. foreign policy that contains exactly 37 footnotes and exactly zero maps.

This week, Brookings is releasing a strategy document for the 45th president authored by former high-ranking officials in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—Eric Edelman, Stephen Hadley, and Kristen Silverberg on the Republican side, and Derek Chollet, Michèle Flournoy, and Jake Sullivan on the Democratic side—along with Kagan and fellow Brookings scholars Martin Indyk, Bruce Jones, and Thomas Wright. (Kagan and Wright told me that the document—which has been in the works since the summer of 2015, when a Trump presidency was considered a pipe dream—was modified in light of Trump’s election, but that they do not consider it a response to Trump in particular.)

“The question that confronts us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” the report’s authors write. “Should the United States adopt a new grand strategy that no longer prioritizes securing and sustaining a U.S.-led liberal international order and instead pursues a narrower, more nationalist approach to foreign policy?”….

A world organized around spheres of influence” is “inherently unstable,” the authors add, because the boundaries of those spheres tend to be hotly contested. “It is a configuration prone to great power conflict,” of the kind that raged before the U.S.-led order came into existence.

Isn’t Trump’s America-First nationalism a recognition of this moment of renewed geopolitical competition? I asked Kagan and Wright.

Kagan agreed, but he argued that Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy could turn the United States into a “rogue superpower.” Trump’s mentality is “if China’s screwing us, we screw China. If Russia’s screwing us, we screw Russia. If somebody hits us, we hit them back. Which is a different approach than [taking the position that] the way you deal with China [and Russia] is by having strong alliances in the region, by setting up a pro-democratic, pro-free market system, by having trade agreements, by having American forces in Japan and similarly in Europe [where] you have NATO, you have the EU. [That] has been the traditional way.”….

Asked about this uncompromising stance on the international order, Kagan responded, “There [is] not an unlimited number of options for how to uphold it. You have to have American forces in Asia, you have to have American forces in Europe, you have to support this alliance system, you have to support this global economy. You’re not going to have a massive deviation if you think the order that was created in a certain way needs to be sustained.”

But if that’s the case, will reports like this one help resolve the perception problem Kagan identified? In defending a set of policies they acknowledge are unpopular at the moment, the authors are suggesting that many Americans’ assumptions about U.S. foreign policy, while understandable, are ultimately misguided. Yet they don’t devote much space in the report to interrogating their own assumptions. If World War III has not erupted in the last seven decades, is that really because of the international order, as the authors argue? Or is it the result of other factors, like the chilling effect that nuclear weapons have had on great-power conflict? Is the endurance of NATO more a cause or a symptom of peace in Europe?

As for how he and his co-authors hope to influence the policies of the Trump administration, Kagan said, “You try to say the right thing and hope that eventually people will come around to seeing what you think is the right thing. It isn’t like you’re going to walk into [Trump Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon’s office and say, ‘I think you really should do this!’” Perhaps the president will eventually come around to their arguments. Or he won’t, and in four years we’ll have a better sense of who was right: Trump or the establishment.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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